By Mairi Ferris, Thrive Outdoors Performance Advisor, Inspiring Scotland

THERE are big changes happening to early childhood in Scotland – and it puts us at the vanguard of a global movement.

Last month saw the publication of the World Health Organisation’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030, a strategy to increase physical activity and curb a rise in deadly illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and strokes – and one way Scotland is already working towards it is through the increase in free childcare hours.

The WHO action plan calls for a four-step strategy to increase physical activity by creating active societies by changing attitudes towards physical activity, active spaces which encourage easy access to physical activity, active people by providing free opportunities in multiple settings and active systems by creating multisectoral partnerships and increasing workforce capabilities to encourage physical activity. Inspiring Scotland’s work to develop more outdoor nursery spaces as part of the childcare increase does all of this.

Our Thrive Outdoors programme will be working with eight local authorities to increase provision of outdoor nurseries and develop understanding about the benefits of being physically active outdoors through play.

Outdoor play-based learning is an essential catalyst for healthy childhood development – it increases physical activity and boosts health and wellbeing as a result. It encourages cognitive development, imagination and creativity and helps children to build the emotional and social skills they will need throughout their lives. Nursery time held outdoors consistently has better outcomes for children than indoors. What’s more, without the need for additional nursery buildings and using only existing outdoor spaces in our cities and towns, it is crucial in delivering the Scottish Government’s promised expansion of early learning and childcare.

Our model for delivery is a collaboration between Scottish Government, councils, local nurseries and charity and social enterprise organisations. With thousands more early years workers needed to staff the 1,140 hours by 2020, it is great opportunity to create a trained and trusted local childcare workforce.

We have seen that outdoor play is particularly valuable for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and have been working with Glasgow City Council and charities such as The Jeely Piece Club in Castlemilk and 3D Drumchapel to deliver a range of services from pre-school upwards.

As a result, observations by child development officers show that more than 80 per cent of children have shown increased confidence and awareness. We have seen children embrace play outdoors and welcome the freedom of choice that is often not provided within a nursery classroom setting.

We have also found staff benefit from outdoor play learning. In Drumchapel, key workers have expressed how much they enjoy outdoor play and have experienced improved health and wellbeing, whilst managers in Edinburgh have seen a massive reduction in staff sick days for those who are involved in outdoor play.

The benefits extend further still. Members of the communities we work in are gaining a greater understanding of the importance of woodland and green areas. They are establishing areas for safe use with volunteers working to clear weekend litter from areas allocated for outdoor nurseries to make sure they are fit for purpose. Our outdoor nurseries programme will continue to evolve through practice and sharing knowledge with other groups locally, nationally and internationally, with the potential to grow and grow.